Death and the King’s Horseman, one of Soyinka’s tragedies, presents a representation of the Yoruba worldview. In Yoruba cosmology, there are three worlds: the world of the living, the world of the dead, and the world of the unborn. This play focuses on what connects all three worlds—transition, the pathway on which members of the different worlds meet and interact.
The opening of the play involves the ritual ceremonies for the burial of a dead king. Elesin, the king’s horseman, attired in glorious robes, enters the village marketplace in a majestic dance procession, followed by praise-singers and drummers. Elesin dances until he is in a trance, a state of transition. He performs poetry and song about the world of the ancestors and the connectedness of the three worlds.
The purpose of this ceremony is to help the dead king travel peacefully to the world of the dead. It should conclude with the suicide of Elesin, whose soul will accompany the king’s. Elesin sees a beautiful woman in the crowd and demands one night of love with her before he dies. Iyaloja, the mother of the marketplace, reluctantly agrees.
Also in the village is the British colonial district officer, Pilking. He is well-meaning but unable to understand or respect the Yoruban people. He also performs a dance at a gathering of his own people—a mocking imitation of an African dance in captured regalia. When Pilking hears of Elesin’s intention to die, he has him arrested to prevent it.
Soyinka makes it clear in his preface that this is not a mere clash of cultures; this is not simply a case of the white colonialist interfering with native culture. Elesin has failed to perform his duty, and his failure has cosmic significance. The white officer is a catalyst, but he cannot otherwise affect the village. The cosmic world is untouched by colonialism and materialism.
Elesin’s son Olunde, a doctor, returns from England. He has heard of the king’s death and assumes that his father’s death is near. Olunde reveres native culture and has had wide experience of Western culture. He tries unsuccessfully to make Pilking understand Yoruban belief. Ashamed to see his father’s failure, he kills himself in Elesin’s place.
When Elesin sees his son’s body, he takes his own life. This suicide is the result of shame, however, not duty, and it cannot repair the bonds that have been broken. The young bride, pregnant from her one night with Elesin, appears. She ritually closes her husband’s eyes as Iyaloja says, “Now forget the dead, forget even the living. Turn your mind only to the unborn.”
The alafin (king) dies. It is time for his chief lieutenant, Elesin Oba, to will his own death, so that he might accompany the alafin on his passage to the next life. As Elesin enters the market, the Praise-Singer pleads with him to tarry a while, to enjoy the last fruits of life in this world. Elesin, a man of enormous courage, rejects this plea and boasts of his readiness to meet death without fear. He talks of the Not-I bird that sounds at the approach of death, echoed by people from all levels of society who seek to flee death—all but he, the king’s horseman, who was born and lived for this moment.
The women of the marketplace, led by Iyaloja, also ask whether he is truly ready to face death, praising him all the while for his strength of will. On this night, nothing can be denied him: rich clothing, fine food, beautiful women, all are at his pleasure. A beautiful young woman, the Bride, catches his eye. He determines that he will have her, even though she is already promised as a bride to Iyaloja’s son. Tactfully, Iyaloja suggests that he should not claim the Bride, just as an honorable man will leave food at a feast for the children. The insistence of the king’s horseman at this moment cannot be denied, however, and Elesin and the woman retire to the bridal chamber.
At the district officer’s house, the Pilkingses prepare to attend a costume ball in honor of the visiting British prince. They are modeling their disguises, ritual masks of the Yoruba dead cult, when Sergeant Amusa arrives to report a disturbance in the marketplace caused by Elesin’s preparations for death. A Muslim, Amusa is flustered by the Pilkingses’ blasphemous use of the death masks in a nonreligious context and cannot express himself clearly. The Pilkingses’ servant, Joseph, a convert to Christianity, explains what is happening, whereupon Simon Pilkings decides to halt the ritual suicide, upholding Western ideals of the sanctity of life. Pilkings orders Amusa to make the arrest while he and his wife go to meet the Prince.
Back in the marketplace, Amusa’s attempt to enter the bridal chamber and arrest Elesin is blocked by Iyaloja and the young women, who mock the policeman as a eunuch neutered by the white colonial authorities. Defeated by the women, Amusa retreats to seek reinforcement. Then Elesin emerges from the bridal chamber bearing bloodstained bedclothes, evidence of the Bride’s virginity and his success in impregnating her, creating a union of life and the passage to death. Filled with vitality and sexual satisfaction, he momentarily loses his will to die, but recovers and falls gradually into a trance. As his spirit moves away from this world, his body begins a heavy dance accompanied by the Praise-Singer’s ritual pronouncements.
Amusa arrives at the ball in tattered clothing to report his failure to arrest Elesin. Pilkings, admonished by his supervisor to maintain control, takes matters into his own hands, going off to arrest Elesin. While he is gone, Elesin’s son Olunde, whom the Pilkingses befriended and sent to England to study medicine, arrives, expecting to bury his father after hearing in England of the alafin’s death. As Jane Pilkings and Olunde speak of England, Olunde shows that he does not accept British values, despite his Western education.
Seeking a topic on which they might agree, Olunde and Jane discuss the progress of the war. Jane tells him of an English naval captain who died while destroying his ship, thereby saving the city. She finds his self-sacrifice difficult to understand, convinced there must have been another way. Olunde finds the self-sacrifice life-affirming, being death in the cause of life. Jane then informs him that her husband is en route to prevent Elesin’s suicide. Olunde explains that Pilkings’s success would be catastrophic because of the ritual importance of the horseman’s death. Pilkings returns and becomes nervous and distracted on hearing Olunde’s words. The mood is explained when a heavily chained Elesin arrives on the scene; Pilkings has succeeded. Olunde first ignores his father’s presence and then rejects him, calling him, like Amusa, an eater of leftovers.
In his prison cell beneath the resident’s palace, Elesin first blames Pilkings for arresting him. The moment at which Elesin should have joined the alafin on his journey to heaven passed with the arrest, and it is too late to restore the cosmic order. Elesin claims to have regained his sense of purpose after experiencing the contempt of his son, but Elesin is no longer able to carry out his own death. When Pilkings is called away, Elesin shifts blame to the Bride for tempting him away from his destiny. In truth, the white man only provided an excuse for him to succumb to his desire to remain in the world, enjoying its pleasures.
The Pilkingses return to the cell to announce a visitor, Iyaloja, who castigates Elesin for his loss of will and the betrayal of his people. She also announces that a volunteer is found to carry Elesin’s last message: that he will not come to the waiting alafin. When the body of this messenger is carried into the prison area, Pilkings and Elesin are both horrified to recognize Olunde, who takes his father’s place. In a final affront to Elesin’s lost honor, Pilkings refuses to allow Elesin to whisper the ritual message in his son’s ear, thus—from the Yoruba perspective—completing the destruction of the cosmic order. Left with nothing to salvage, Elesin strangles himself with his own chains before the colonial authorities can react. His death, however, comes too late to fulfill his hereditary function. What hopes remain lie with the unborn child the Bride carries, the only fruit of the night’s events.